Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his life sick. He was a sickly child that grew into a sickly adult. And he died young. Many of his tales are stories of the adventure that he must have dreamed about as a boy but couldn't have. He couldn't even go out and play pirates, because he spent so much time in bed. It's no wonder he wrote books like Treasure Island and Kidnapped!

Although most of his works are about adventure and daring-do, one particular story stands out from all the rest and has had a huge cultural impact: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Walk with me a moment...

Remember how I said that Stevenson spent most of his life sick? Well, some people believe that the medical field itself formed a large part of the inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde. Doctors looked so nice, pleasant and respectable on the outside, but they would do horrible things to you behind closed doors. Remember, Stevenson wrote Jekyll in the same time period as Wells wrote Dr. Moreau. Vivisection was common practice. Much of medicine was painful for the patient, so some believe Jekyll was social commentary. Stevenson never said so, but you can't just dismiss these things that were certainly part of what formed Stevenson's personality.

At any rate, whether it had anything to do with the dichotomy of the medical profession or not, Stevenson was incredibly interested in dual personalities. In his teens, he was intrigued with Deacon Brodie, a respectable businessman and politician in the late 1700s. [Deacon was a trade title, not a church title.] Well, apparently respectable, at any rate. At night, he was a thief, using his knowledge of people's homes (from his work which involved locksmithing) to break in. He went 20 years before he was caught and found out, and Stevenson was fascinated to the point of writing a play about Brodie while he was still in his teens. Many scholars feel this fascination with Brodie laid the foundation for Jekyll and Hyde which followed about 10 years after his play about Brodie.

Whatever the case, RLS had a dream in September or October of 1885 that he claims set the basis for Jekyll and Hyde. Or a nightmare. He was screaming, and his wife woke him up. It was Jekyll and Hyde that he was dreaming about, and he set out to write the story immediately thereafter. He wrote it at a frenzied pace, finishing his first draft in a matter of days. Most sources say his wife found it so terrifying that he burned the manuscript. But he couldn't let go of the story and, almost immediately, started on it again. The new draft was also completed in a matter of days, and it was published in January of 1886 (don't you wish things happened that quickly these days?).

It just so happened that the idea of dissociative disorders were just beginning to be formed by psychologists in the late 1800s. Starting in the 1880s, to be more exact. Prior to this, these types of episodes as RLS describes in Jekyll and Hyde would have been attributed to demon possession, but psychologists were just realizing that traumatic events in life could cause long-term disorders. It was into this intellectual field that Jekyll and Hyde sprang, and it changed the way psychology looked at dissociative identity disorders.

The idea, the wrong idea, of split personalities developed and is still popular today even if it is inaccurate. The phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has meaning beyond the fact that it's the name of RLS' story, and we don't use that term nicely when speaking about another person. It's a rare thing that an idea like this will escape the pages it was bound in and become a larger idea. Like Frankenstein. But it's an idea that has shaped more than a generation of thought and had a huge impact on actual science and scientific thought. Because a writer was fascinated with an Idea. In this case, the idea that one man, one person, could, in truth, be more than just one man.

Just to put into perspective how popular Jekyll and Hyde was: It sold 40,000 copies in its first six months of publication. This was astounding at the time. By 1901, it had sold more than 250,000 copies. This was at a time when the common person on the street couldn't read at more than the most basic level. Many couldn't even write their own names. Public readings of Jekyll and Hyde were not uncommon.

So... a thing, an Idea, doesn't have to become tangible to become real. Ideas that shape society are just as real as, say, an automobile or an airplane.


  1. Ideas are amazing things, and the way RLS put his to paper so quickly shows how powerful they can be chewing at the brain of their creators until something is done about it. Thanks for sharing this, a very interesting read! :)

  2. Interesting. I never realized he wrote Dr. jekyll and mr hyde. Loved Treasure Island.

  3. He was on to something with that story.
    Interesting he wrote so many adventures when he couldn't go on any of them. So much for write what you know.

  4. I think Jekyll and Hyde is my favorite RLS story. I think it's a brilliant take on human nature.

    I ducked into the Writer's Museum in Edinburgh to see a quick display on RLS there. It is sad that his life ended so young and after being sick for so long. He was such a talent.

  5. His writing, "A Child Garden of Verses" was my favorite as a child and sparked my interest in poetry. Then of course, the other books were wonderful as I got older. He had such a gift. Thanks for all the background!

  6. I read Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde many years ago, back when I was in high school, and thought it was very fascinating. I didn't know this was how Robert Louis Stevenson came up with the idea for the plot. I love finding out how stories came to be, and what inspired authors to write them. Thanks for this interesting post!

  7. I always thought that Stevenson might have gotten the idea of Jekyll and Hyde from a parent or sibling that went crazy. My mother is schizophrenic. The way she behaves is very similar to Jekyll and Hyde and not too hard to imagine a story with this kind of character.

  8. This is one of the best, most creepy novels ever written in my opinion. I would KILL to have read the first draft. I think it's really interesting that it came from a dream - that and the origins of Frankenstein are two of my favorite English major stories from college.

    And again, I think it's amazing how much writers influence the world. P

  9. P.S. It sort of annoys me that I didn't think to write about Jekyll and Hyde.

  10. Brilliantly put at the end, there. I also liked the background information -- especially because I just finished listening to Radiolab's "Who Am I?" podcast in which they delved into Stevenson's creative method; Stevenson said that many of his stories came to him through visions acted out by little men in his dreams, and apparently was quite serious about it. You'd probably like that podcast.

  11. The closest I've come to reading that book is watching "The League of Extraordinary Gentelemen." I should get around to it at some point.

  12. I liked your little dig at split personalities towards the end. Psychology is a discipline that has had lots of fads and ideas that caught on in pop culture that ended up being not so good.

    Remember when lobotomies were supposed to be the cure for pretty much every mental illness?

  13. Ah, so many wonderful story lines are created in the brain while we slumber away in the night... creepy things that we would never dream of during the bright daylight hours. I love reading RLS's stories. With all the illnesses I have experienced, I would hate to have been under a sawbones' care back then. Best regards to you, Ruby

  14. Bonnee: Ideas are the most important things there are, I think.

    soggy: He wrote some great books. Thanks for stopping in!

    Alex: Well, in his case, I think it was write what you want to know.

    L.G.: You're just taunting me with that, aren't you? There's a whole writers' museum? That's pretty cool.

    Donna: He did write a lot of different types of things. Rather amazing, actually.

    Sadaf: Inspiration is such a curious thing. It's always interesting to know.

    Michael: That is why people misapplied the whole split personality thing for so long. Still do, actually.

    S.L.: Oh, I know! It makes me cringe that he tossed it in the fire. It makes me want to smack him! heh

    Briane: I'll have to take a listen to it when I get a chance. Which, at this point, should be sometime in 2013. :P It does sound interesting, though.

    Grumpy: You should read it. It hasn't lost anything with its 100+ years in print.

    Rusty: Oh, yeah, I remember the whole lobotomy thing. Medicine (of any sort) has always been a shady science.

    Grammy: Unfortunately, it's not always much better today. Thanks for coming by!